On The Cultural Significance of Zen and Shojin Ryori Cuisine


    On my first visit to the Kansai region of Japan (a place I now call home), I once heard a Zen riddle that asks, “How can you drink tea from an empty cup?” A reply was given “An empty cup is better than a full cup, because you can always add to an empty cup.” The riddle expresses the concept that less can sometimes make us feel more satisfied and content, and was a pleasant realization for me at the time. On a deeper level, Zen can be seen as a way towards cultivating mindfulness.1

    Many visitors to Japan have a keen interest in traditional culture, especially Zen, and the Kansai region is where much of its presence can be experienced today. Over the centuries, Zen in Japan has created its own distinct culture. Specifically, its emphasis on the values of simplicity, naturalness, and harmony have largely shaped the development of Japanese aesthetics and all of the various Japanese arts – in the way of tea, landscape design, architecture, Japanese cuisine, calligraphy, ink painting, haiku poetry, incense appreciation, ikebana flower arrangement, noh drama, shakuhachi music, kendo, Judo and kyudo archery. The focus of all the arts lies in negating the self – rising above the self to become completely at one with what one is doing. To reach that stage, there is only one way:


    What we know as Japanese ‘Zen’ is a form of Buddhism that developed earlier in 7th and 8th century China, when Buddhism spread from India to China and interacted with the indigenous traditions of ‘Daoist’ spirituality. The character for ‘Zen’ 禅 is the Japanese way of pronouncing the older Chinese word ‘Chán’ 禪 , which itself derives from the ancient Sanskrit term ‘Dhyāna’. Dhyāna means meditation, so Chán Buddhism or Zen Buddhism literally means a type of Buddhism that emphasizes meditation. Chán Buddhism continued to thrive in China during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties and eventually spread to Vietnam, Korea and to Japan from the 12th century. Japanese Zen teaches that enlightenment can be achieved through strict mental and physical practices such as zazen, or sitting in silent meditation, and the actions of being in the present moment. Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on self-discipline is also a key reason why it became highly regarded among the warrior class during Japan’s medieval period, a tumultuous time in Japan’s history when feudal warlords vied for power. This was a time when life was particularly perilous, and therefore seemed even more precious. Much later in the 1960’s and 1970’s Zen became very popular outside of Asia, and today it is practiced around the world.


    At present, there are three main Zen sects in Japan: Rinzai Zen, introduced during the 12th and 13th centuries, Soto Zen, introduced during the 13th century, and the Obaku Zen, introduced during the 17th century. During the early medieval period, several emperors and much of the ruling samurai class would convert to Rinzai Zen, and they would often build temples and sub-temples, or donate their residences to Zen monasteries, many of which still remain today. In particular, Zen temples in Kyoto during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and Muromachi period (1336-1573) were at the center of the artistic, cultural, and intellectual life of medieval Japan. They wielded immense influence, both culturally and politically.


    The Japanese priest Myōan Eisai (1141-1215) introduced Rinzai from China to Japan in the late 12th century, first in northern Kyushu and then in Kyoto. The methodology of Rinzai Zen is called ‘kanna-zen’, which combines seated meditation and working with a kōan. A kōan is a story, dialogue, question, or statement that cannot be solved by logic. It is given by a master to a disciple to continuously ponder at all times, when meditating or going about daily monastic life. A well-known example is:

    “What is the sound of one hand clapping?“

    The kōan acts as a catalyst for the disciple to fully and completely empty the mind of delusions of attachment. Kōans, originating from Chinese masters, have been collected and passed down over the centuries. The Rinzai canon contains over 1,700 kōans. Fourteen branches of the Rinzai sect exist in Japan, with most of its head temples located in Kyoto, such as Myoshin-ji, Nanzen-ji, Tofuku-ji, Daitoku-ji, Tenryu-ji, Shokoku-ji and Kennin-ji.


    Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253) was the founder of the Soto Zen sect in Japan. The methodology of Soto Zen is called mokusho-zen, in which practitioners sit silently with an open mind (zazen), without any kōans to wrestle with. Sitting and practicing zazen intently is called ‘shikantaza’. Although Dōgen studied kōans when he was young, he didn’t employ them in Soto Zen.

    In Rinzai Zen, when monks do zazen, they face inward, toward the center of the zendo hall, while in Soto Zen, they face the wall. The head temples of Soto are Eihei-ji temple in Fukui Prefecture, and Soji-ji temple in Yokohama. The Soto sect spread mostly among lower samurai and the common people outside of Kyoto.


    The Obaku sect of Zen was introduced much later, around 1660 when the Chinese priest Ingen Ryūki founded Mampuku-ji temple near Uji, just south of Kyoto city. Obaku Zen retains the flavor of its origin in China and it employs not only zazen and kōan practice, but also chanting of the ‘nembutsu’ (recitation of the Buddha’s name) to see the Pure Land of Buddha in oneself.

    Most Zen sub-temples are closed communities whose primary aim is to guide practitioners to spiritual enlightenment, and so they are serious about maintaining privacy. Fortunately for visiting present-day seekers of Zen, many larger Zen temples offer the opportunity for laypersons to practice zazen in an authentic setting, and sometimes the experience is accompanied by a bowl of Japanese green tea.


    The type of zazen advocated by Dōgen Zenji, founder of Soto Zen, is seated meditation, which he attested that “zazen is satori in and of itself”. Zazen consists of adjusting one’s body (choshin 調身), adjusting one’s breathe (chosoku 調息), and adjusting one’s mind (choshin 調心), with the aim of attaining a state of no-mind in which body, breath, and mind are in unison.

    Sitting - to sit zazen, wear loose clothing and sit on a thick cushion. There are three ways of sitting: full-lotus (kekkafuza), half-lotus (hankafuza), and ‘seiza’ - the traditional way of sitting in which the feet are tucked underneath the pelvis. Zazen can also be done seated in a chair.

    Hand placement - bring the hands in against the ‘tanden’ (the area of the lower belly about four finger widths below the navel) and place your right open palm over your left open palm.

    Centering- relax your shoulders, tuck your chin in, and straighten your back. After crossing your legs and hand placement, slowly sway your body from left to right like a pendulum until you come to a full rest. Then repeat the same motion from front to back until centered.

    Eyes and mouth - open your eyes halfway, and focus on a spot on the floor about one meter away. Close your mouth, and place your tongue gently behind your upper teeth.

    Breathing - place your concentration into your tanden, just below your navel. Inhale naturally and then exhale calmly and slowly. The exhalation should be longer than the inhalation. Let your breaths flow in and out naturally, breathing from the tanden. As you breath out, count each breath silently from one until ten, and then repeat. The breath is a mirror of the mind.

    Mind - while sitting quietly, observe whatever is happening. Let the things you can see, sounds you hear and thoughts within your mind arise and dissipate without attachment.


    The saying ‘chazen-ichimi’ 茶禅一味 means that the taste of tea and Zen are one and the same. The Japanese ‘Way of Tea’ developed out of the tea drinking etiquette cultivated in the meditation halls of Zen monasteries. Tea wakes and soothes both mind and body without intoxicating them, and is therefore seen as a symbol of Zen.

    Earlier in Tang dynasty China, Zen practitioners discovered that drinking green tea helped keep them awake during long sessions of zazen, and so the foundations of tea drinking became established among Zen monks in China. Later in 1191, Myōan Eisai, the founder of the Japanese Rinzai Zen sect, brought green tea back with him to Japan after his ascetic training in China. Tea drinking eventually became more formalized in Zen monasteries in Japan, where it was called ‘sarei’. Accordingly, green tea became a feature of Zen life, with the preparation and consumption conducted according to Chinese practice. With the passage of time, the tea ritual was adapted further to Japanese tastes, and among leading contributors were prominent Zen priests of the day, such as Ikkyū Sōjun (1394-1481) and his disciple Murata Jukō (1423-1502), both with close ties to Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto, a place considered by major present-day schools of Japanese tea (Chanoyu) as their mecca. During the 16th century, tea gatherings spread increasingly to the warrior and merchant class, who not only used them for recreation but also as a way to practice Zen. As with the aesthetic tastes of the day, small, thatched-roof teahouses came to be built, called ‘soan’ and they were partly based on small, detached residences of retired samurai or government officials. Prosperous merchants in the port city of Sakai (Osaka) – who were also tea masters trained in Zen – used their wealth and energy to advance the arts of the time, especially the art of tea (Chanoyu).


    Shojin ryori is a cuisine based on Zen monastery cooking. The food is prepared with the aim of purifying the body and mind. Strictly vegetarian, shojin ryori follows the Buddhist admonition of not killing, using no meat or seafood, and only grains, vegetables, seeds and seaweed. A typical meal may include boiled vegetables along with sesame tofu (goma-dofu) and a vinegar dish such as daikon radish. Whatever the ingredients, they will be accompanied by rice, pickles, and miso soup.

    In Zen monasteries, shojin ryori originally consisted of a simple set of dishes called ‘ichijiru-issai’ 一汁一菜 , or “soup plus one dish” from which Zen monks were able to maintain health on a minimal amount of nutrition. On special days, ‘ichijiru-sansai’ 一汁三菜 or “soup plus three dishes” was also served. The idea was to ingest just enough food to survive, without pandering to greed. This frugal eating style is known as ‘oryoki’, which Zen monks learn early on in their training. The Zen ritual of oryoki also emphasizes mindful eating, and has much to teach us about eating economically and well.

    In Dōgen Zenji’s book ‘Tenzo Kyōkun’ (Instructions to the Cook) he wrote: “It is an important practice to make meals sincerely. One should not waste any ingredients, and bring forth the taste of each food to its maximum effect.” In essence, preparation of the food is treated as a spiritual practice by which one cultivates mindfulness. The fundamentals of shojin ryori: quality natural ingredients, arrangement of seasonal foods in various colors, and the wasting of nothing, have gone on to greatly influence the wider world of Japanese cuisine, and for this we can be grateful.

    Written by Andy Moser


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